A tanker drivers’ strike is exactly what the government wants

This post was written by Owen on March 29, 2012
Posted Under: Tories,Trade Unions

On the face of it, the government all but telling everyone to panic-buy fuel looks like a massive blunder. Spokespeople for both the petrol industry and the AA have said as much, and in most circumstances creating a nationwide fuel shortage out of nothing is a pretty stupid thing to do. But I don’t think it’s an accident; I could be wrong, but it looks a lot like this is exactly what the government wants. Not, as one of my fellow writers on this blog suggested earlier, just to give the GDP figures a boost. And not just because, as Paul points out, it’s the only way they can justify the draconian restrictions on how long after a vote industrial action can take place.

The government wants the strike to go ahead because what it’s aiming for is a nice big Thatcher-style fight with the unions. And the reason it wants that is that it thinks it can win. Ministers are gambling that the strike will fail, and that that defeat will help weaken the trade union movement. Think of it this way: if you were the government, and you wanted to damage trade unions, how would you do that? How about turning a narrow industrial dispute involving a couple of thousand people into a national crisis, say by talking up how you’re going to have to bring in the army and calling a meeting of COBRA? Then, perhaps you could manufacture a massive nationwide fuel shortage for no apparent reason? The neat thing about a fuel shortage is that it’s going to seriously inconvenience a huge number of people – most of whom will place the blame for said inconvenience squarely on the striking workers, thanks to an ever-shrinking proportion of the workforce being unionised and a national media which can be relied on to treat practically any industrial action as tantamount to treason. You could help things along by painting any union leaders involved in the dispute as dangerous radicals, hell-bent on causing havoc in the country. Something along these lines would probably work quite well:

“There are people who believe that this is part of Len McCluskey’s grand plan to bring the country to a juddering halt,” Maude said.

“He’s already threatened to bring the country to a halt during the Olympics at a time when the eyes are going to be on us. This is part of his plan.”

A fuel crisis works particularly well here too because – what with police cars, ambulances and fire engines needing petrol too – you get to accuse the tanker drivers and their union of endangering people’s lives, which makes the whole ‘enemy within’ thing that bit easier to sell. You do have to wilfully ignore the fact that Unite are trying to make sure emergency fuel depots are kept supplied during any strike but again, most of the media can be relied on to be quite helpful in this regard.

Of course, that’s not all. You also have to make sure that discussion of the actual reasons for the strike is avoided as much as possible. Note that no matter how many times in this video David Cameron repeats the mantra that strike action would be unjustified, he doesn’t once say anything about tanker drivers’ worsening pensions and working conditions which resulted in the strike ballot being called. The government – and Francis Maude in particular – slipped up during the public sector strikes back in November (and before that in June) by engaging in substantive discussions about the issues. If people actually start to understand why other working people care enough about an issue that they’re prepared to stop working and lose pay over it there’s a real danger they might start empathising with them, and then those striking workers become a lot harder to demonise.

The really nice thing for the government, of course, is that Unite are also involved in the public sector pensions dispute, which is still smouldering and set to flare up again soon. So if as a result of this dispute Len McCluskey gets fixed in the popular consciousness as the heir to Arthur Scargill, and then Unite get involved in further strikes over pensions (as they may well do), it’ll become that bit easier for the government to portray the strikers as evil militants rather than workers standing up for their rights, which will in turn make it that bit easier to push through the tighter labour laws they’ve been dying to pass for years. Oh, and for anyone who thinks this is all far-fetched conspiracy-theorising, you do realise that the Tories have a bit of a history when it comes to this kind of thing, right?

This isn’t necessarily to say that the tanker drivers shouldn’t go on strike – I imagine the government would be quite happy were the strike to be called off as well, and “don’t go on strike or you won’t be able to protect your members’ interests” is a counsel of despair for any trade union. But it’s something worth keeping in mind when the likes of David Cameron start acting like one strike by a couple of thousand people is the Winter of Discontent all over again.

Update: Charles Moore in the Telegraph tells us what he’s hearing from Tory MPs:

“This is our Thatcher moment. In order to defeat the coming miners’ strike, she stockpiled coal. When the strike came, she weathered it, and the Labour Party, tarred by the strike, was humiliated. In order to defeat the coming fuel drivers’ strike, we want supplies of petrol stockpiled. Then, if the strike comes, we will weather it, and Labour, in hock to the Unite union, will be blamed.”

This suggests I was right that the government is looking for a fight with the unions, but the panic-buying of fuel wasn’t part of the plan – an unfortunate combination of both cock-up and conspiracy.

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Reader Comments

Rupert

Agree totally. They could probably use the extra revenue too, in the form of a nice little buying frenzy to rake in fuel tax just before the end of the financial year.

#1 
Written By Rupert on March 29th, 2012 @ 10:51 pm

I get what you’re trying to say. Sort of. But I think the article is mis-timed and rather unhelpful. Here’s some disjointed rambling thoughts that will no doubt muddy the waters further:

I don’t think the government actually wants this strike, no. Tanker drivers are one of a relatively small group of workers whose industrial power will be felt almost immediately in the event of a strike (in fact, is already being felt – panic buying may be due to govt incompetence or a cunning plan, but the reason it happens is ultimately down to the strong economic position of the drivers).

The government thinks they can win the strike? Yeah probably. They always do. They thought they could win against the miners in ’74, for example. Doesn’t mean they will.

They’ll paint strikers as unreasonable militants rather than “real people.” Always happens. Nothing can be done about it except engage in a propaganda war with the government/employers. This is an aspect of any industrial dispute in the history of the world. OK, it’d be nice if the unions were better at it, but strikes aren’t ultimately won or lost in the media. Really, they’re not.

McCluskey as the next Scargill? I don’t think people are ready to fall for that, except people who are already inclined to say stupid things about unions anyway. More dangerous is if people on the left start bigging him up like that. (cf. Serwotka, Crow, Galloway, etc, etc)

Lastly I’d say this. We’re in a period when the union movement is more or less having to rebuild itself from nothing. This will include engaging in industrial action, alongside all the other things unions do or should be doing. Some of these actions will be unsuccessful. I actually think the tanker drivers are more likely to win, and in fact may force big concessions without actually having to strike, because of their industrial leverage (compared to say, public sector pension strikes, where things like public support are more important because the economic impact isn’t felt for ages).

I actually think the govt are dreading this dispute. Remember, they’re not the employers here anyway so don’t have direct control over handling it. I even think bringing the army in would be an own goal, make them look desperate, and offend a lot of “English” sensibilities. Although you say otherwise at the end of your article, your implicit message seems to be “don’t be reckless, the government have the upper hand, it’s not worth it” etc. At a time when people’s confidence to strike has to be built up carefully after years of Not Doing It, I don’t think this is very helpful.

#2 
Written By EddM on March 30th, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

I put in the paragraph at the end precisely because I’m not arguing that this is precisely what’s going to happen – just that the government’s betting it will. If they’re wrong and you’re right, then that’s great. Even if that’s the case, though, that won’t do anything to stop the government passing stricter anti-union laws making it harder to take more action.

And no, of course strikes aren’t won or lost in the media or even necessarily according to what popular opinion is of the strike (which is affected by but obviously not identical to the media’s opinion), but again, if the longer-term effect is to make it easier for the government to restrict trade unions even further then that could (and I emphasise ‘could’ not ‘will’) be a bit of a hollow victory. All I was aiming for in writing the article was for people to bear this stuff in mind when considering how to act in the tanker drivers’ dispute. If the tanker drivers do strike, I’ll support them – I want a stronger, more active trade union movement as much as you do (though obviously our politics differ fairly fundamentally). But that doesn’t negate the need for thinking things through.

#3 
Written By Owen on March 30th, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

Gah, two “precisely”s in the first sentence. Proofreading fail.

#4 
Written By Owen on March 30th, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

They think they can deceive the public so easily but I’m glad it doesn’t appear to be so. I agree that the government really is looking for a fight with the unions.

#5 
Written By Gordon Franklin on April 5th, 2012 @ 10:13 am

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